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‘Til Death Do Us Part: Alternatives to Monogamy
Recently, a reader wrote in asking: “Are open relationships on the rise and what cultural changes do you see in the relationship landscape in Canada and the US?”
Issues surrounding monogamy have crossed all of our minds at one point or another, especially recently with the constant media hype surrounding “sex addicts” like Tiger Woods, Jesse James, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (to name a few). However, can these celebrity acts of unfaithfulness be generalized to the population? In other words, are their lives significantly different from ours or do their “mishaps” just illustrate the realities of modern life?
As our society becomes more liberal and accepting, is it reasonable to expect a romantic partner to remain monogamous? Well, we know it can be done and it has been done, countless times. Simply stated, it IS humanly possible, but (as many of us know) it is not a piece of cake. In fact, evolutionary theory would have us believe that it is in our best interest (specifically men’s) to engage in sexual activity with as many people as possible (the water’s get a bit murkier with regards to women’s ideal relationships context).
After all of the advances evolutionary psychology has made within the last few decades, it is becoming clearer and clearer that, although it can be done, monogamy may not be an innate preference. As a result, monogamy may be too restrictive and unrealistic. From this, people have began to consider nonrestrictive relationships, often called “open relationships.” Although the term “open relationship” only started being used in the 70’s, the phenomena of engaging in sexual activity with more than one person at a time is anything but infantine. In fact, it can be seen it records dating back to the dawning of man.
Although ancient in nature, “open relationships” (related to polyamory), have been on the rise since the sexual revolution in the 70’s. An exact estimate of the prevalence of “open relationships” is rather difficult to obtain due to the secrecy surrounding these acts and groups of people. Of the few studies that have attempted to examine these populations, estimates have been anything but statistically reliable. In fact, estimates of the prevalence posited by these studies range from 1.7% of the population (Cole & Spaniard, 1974) and 15% of the population (MCGinley, 1995). Furthermore, these estimates are expected to be a little higher as of recently, due to increased acceptance.
So, we know the occurrence of “open relationships” is becoming more and more commonplace. However, besides the increased acceptance, what can account for the rise in the practicing of “open relationships?” One possibility might be the growth in technology including the world wide web. Increased anonymity associated with the internet makes it easier for people to identify online as being a part of a stigmatized group. In particular, the internet is a great place for those interested in “open relationships” to look up relevant information, chat with others sharing similar interests, and/or locate others to get involved with.
Although, those involved in “open relationships” are no longer considered to be marginalized people, we still do not know a whole lot about who they are. However, from the little information we have, it turns out these people are not much different from you and I. According to Bergstrand & Williams (2000), people involved in swinging communities (a type of “open relationship”) are, on average, white, middle-class, and middle-aged individuals. On the other hand, when it comes to attitudes toward sex and marriage, they appear to be less sexist and less heterosexist than the general population.
Although monogamy may be difficult for some and far from ideal, there are many powerful incentives to stay faithful with one’s partner (raising children, financial benefits, etc…). That being said, for some, experimenting sexually with a variety of people may be more advantageous than committing to a monogamous relationship with only one person. In that case, “open relationships” may be the right choice for them.